The parents--doctors, car salesmen, nurses and bureaucrats from Fairfax County--compared it to an old-fashioned barn-raising.

The man behind the project says he got the idea from the "happenings" of the 1960s.

Whatever you call it, the end result was child's play. But before the play came a lot of hard work, with more than 500 volunteers digging holes and pounding nails in four frenzied days of construction to turn an empty school field into a cre me de la cre me of playgrounds.

"Seldom in life does something so complex take shape in four days," says Robert S. Leathers, the New York architect who helped design the maze of wood and old tires and oil drums at Laurel Ridge Elementary School in the King's Park West subdivision of Fairfax County.

In the past four years, Leathers has designed and helped build 45 similar play areas on the East Coast. The Laurel Ridge playground is one of four completed Leathers' designs in Fairfax County, and three other Fairfax projects are in the works.

At Laurel Ridge, as with his other playground projects, Leathers had a grand plan: to complete the construction solely with volunteer help and with a large infusion of donated materials.

The formula is relatively simple. Working with a group of volunteer parents, Leathers advises the parents on how to raise money, how to solicit material and how to organize a volunteer work force. Once the group is ready to begin building the play area, Leathers personally supervises the four-day construction project.

For his design, his advice and his final supervision, Leathers charges $2,000, a fee that most parent groups say is a bargain.

Leathers' grand plan came together again last Sunday when the finishing touches were put on the football field-sized play area at Laurel Ridge. The area, which Leathers describes as a creative wood playground, includes interlocking attractions such as a space shuttle, a haunted house, an amphitheater and a submarine -- a combo one second-grader described as "more fun than watching TV."

"Most communities don't have an opportunity to get together and work on something like this," said Barbara Miskimmin, chairman of the Laurel Ridge committee. "And people really came out of the woodwork with free materials, money and offers of help."

If done commercially, Miskimmin said, the Laurel Ridge project would have cost about $60,000. Because of the free labor and the wealth of donated materials, however, Miskimmin said the group wound up with $14,000 in bills, mainly for materials and Leathers' fee. The committee needs about $1,000 to meet its outstanding bills, and Miskimmin said she is confident the money can be raised quickly now that the playground is finished.

The group did not receive any funds from the school system. "With the way they are cutting budgets and lunches, we knew they couldn't come up with a dime," said fund-raising chairman Gerry Solomon.

Before last week's playground-raising, Laurel Ridge had a typical no-frills playground for its 1,000 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

And the old playground didn't get high marks from the kids.

"It was just metal and it had bars," said third-grader Sherry Walsh, wrinkling up her face. "But this one is going to be funner. And my dad's going to help build and my mom's going to make brownies."

Sherry and companion Dianna Berry were among several hundred students who joined the adult volunteers in helping build the playground. Sherry and Dianna scrubbed several 55-gallon drums before the drums were transformed into the tower of the playground's space shuttle. Second-grader Annie Clifford also helped out by serving as a dirt stomper in her patent leather pumps. (She forgot her sneakers but wanted to help anyway.)

And for kids too young to help, the committee provided babysitters to make it easier for parents to help build the playground as skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled laborers.

The four-day happening at Laurel Ridge last Thursday to Sunday took a lot of advance planning.

"The whole thing began a few years ago," Miskimmin said, "when the parents and the PTA at the school decided there was a need for more playground equipment outside for the kids.

"We did some research looking for a local architect who would supervise a bunch of amateurs to do a playground, and we could not find one."

The Laurel Ridge group heard about Leathers from another group of Fairfax parents who had worked on a playground project with him.

Leathers has a very unique approach to this whole thing," Miskimmin said, "and he's not expensive."

To help cut costs for the parent group, Miskimmin said, Leathers flew at discount fares on the three visits he made to the school and stayed with neighborhood families rather than at a hotel. Sometimes Laurel Ridge shared his travel costs with nearby Fox Mill School, which completed a Leathers-designed playground two weeks ago.

Leathers concedes that his cost-cutting measures are as much to his benefit as the parents.

"Part of the pleasure of the whole thing is living with people in the area and getting to know them," Leathers said last week as he laced up his work boots and prepared to supervise construction of the haunted house. "The comraderie of doing a seemingly impossible task in four days is what makes it possible."

The 40-year-old Leathers, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and the head of an architectural firm in Ithaca, N.Y., which specializes in custom-designed homes, designed his first playground 11 years ago when he and a group of parents completed a play area at one of his children's schools in Ithaca. Since then the work has mushroomed, and Leathers says he has become "addicted" to his playground projects.

"It's the spirit and the emotion of getting a bunch of strangers together and putting together a playground," Leathers says.

Designing a Leathers playground, like organizing the actual contruction, is a complex affair.

Leathers first visits the site and meets with parents to discuss his philosophy and his methods. His next step is what he calls design day, when he talks to the kids. Last spring, Leathers met with each of the 35 classes at Laurel Ridge and had each student draw his "dream playground."

"It's their playground, so it's important that I get their ideas," says Leathers, who found two concepts in the Laurel Ridge students' drawings that he had never before used. They were the space shuttle and submarine, now integral parts of the Laurel Ridge playground.

At the meeting last spring, Leathers also exchanged ideas with the physical education teachers at Laurel Ridge. The teachers told him that most students needed to work on developing upper body strength, a concern Leathers kept in mind while designing the Laurel Ridge facility.

Finally, he and Laurel Ridge Principal Ed Barker tried to make sure all safety consideratons were met. When Leathers sent in his finished design, Barker submitted the plans to the county schools' maintenance and safety department, which approved the design with only minor changes.

With the design completed, the parents began the massive job of gathering the manpower and materials and figuring out how to pay for everything.

"Leathers gave us lists for everything," Miskimmin said. "He has this all down to a science."

By the time the project was completed, 45 companies and individuals had donated items ranging from utility poles to used truck tires. Parents' contributions ranged from $20 for a sheet of plywood to $5 for a bag of nails. When construction finally began, the volunteer committee had a long list of parents who were bringing food, lending equipment or recruiting other parents and neighborhood residents to help with the work.

"This gives the kids their whole little world, and it keeps them from playing in the streets," said Virgil Wilson, one of the parents who helped with construction.

"I never knew so much about construction tools," added Sandie Weiss, who ran the tool shed from a borrowed van at the school. One mother even claimed to have lost five pounds in one day just running around the site.

Jim Sampson, an Air Force major, took the day off last Friday to help build the playground.

"This project is a great thing for the community," he said. "And after playing with Congress all week on the AWACs sale, it's kind of pleasant to look at a board. At least you know where it begins and ends."